In the early 18th century, artisans bleached cloth with stale urine or spoiled milk and then left it out in the sunlight for extended amounts of time. It wasn't exactly the fastest or most efficient way to get the job done, but this process marked how chemistry was used to achieve desired product outcomes.
As the century progressed, industrialists incorporated sulfuric acid and then bleaching powder for textile dying applications. Today, manufacturers use a wide variety of chemistry to convert raw materials such as oil, natural gas, air, water, and metals into useable products.
The chemical industry operates in three different subsectors, including:
- Basic chemical refining, including refining petrochemicals (derived from oil), polymers (derived from petrochemicals), and basic inorganics
- Specialty chemical production, including those in in paints, dyes, and inks and those that help with crop protection
- Consumer chemical production, such as producing detergents and soaps used in commercial and domestic applications
The chemical industry relies on the hard work of chemists, chemical engineers, and refinery or chemical plant operators to run smoothly. This industry employs some of the highest paid and qualified professionals in the U.S.
Chemical manufacturing begins in industry and university research laboratories and then scales up from grams to tons as it finds success. Many regulations govern the industry because of the flammable or toxic nature of its products as well as the high temperatures and other dangerous conditions required to make them, resulting in safer products fit for public consumption.
How the Chemistry Contributes to Economic Growth
Successfully harnessing chemical production and use contributes greatly to a country’s wealth—as of 2011, the world chemical sales exceeded $3,500 billion. Corporations with large chemical manufacturing sectors post billions of dollars in annual sales and operate in many different countries.
Here are some other facts about the chemical industry and its importance to manufacturing as a whole:
- More than 80% of the chemical industry focuses on producing polymers and plastics, which form parts of products like wiring, clothing, PVC piping, and electronics.
- Pharmaceutical companies work with chemicals to manufacture drugs, vaccines, and medical supplies, providing jobs and boosting the economies of developing nations such as India.
- Fertilizers use chemicals to deliver essential nutrients in an effective form that increases plant health, growth, and yield.
- A number of industrial processes rely on defoamers to mitigate foam buildup, increasing plant efficiency.
- Manufactured plastics and polymers form major parts of consumer items such as toiletries, mosquito repellent, and detergents or cleaning items.
- The United States has around 70 major chemical companies operating through more than 2,800 facilities both inside and outside of the U.S. The country’s annual chemical output is about $750 billion. In addition, U.S. chemical companies boast significant trade surpluses, employ more than a million people, and spend over $5 billion annually in pollution abatement.
- Europe's chemical sector accounts for around 12 percent of its manufacturing industry, making it one of the world’s largest exporters and importers. The European chemical industry employs more than 3 million people in over 60,000 companies.
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